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The undiscovered origin of frigate

I decided to stay at sea for at least two more weeks. The history of the word frigate is expected to comfort Germanic scholars, who may not know that, regardless of the language, the names of ships invariably give etymologists grief. In English, frigate is from French, and in French it is from Italian, so that the question is: Where did Italian fregata come from? Naturally, nobody knows. Although the literature on fregata is not extensive (no comparison with what one finds about the derivation of Engl. ship or boat), the conjectures have been rather numerous. Dictionaries prefer to say as little as possible on the subject (some even ignore this word) and usually end the discussion with the statement that the sought-for etymology has not been found. My exposition depends on a long array of dictionaries and two papers. One (by Henry and Renée Kahane, 1965-66) is easily recoverable because the title appears in my bibliography, but I ran into the other one only this past summer, and I suspect that not all specialists know it (Vittore Pisani in Romania. Scritti offerti a Francesco Piccolo…., 1962). The Kahanes may not have had enough time to notice their immediate predecessor. Celebratory volumes (so-called Festschriften) and those in memoriam appear in a steady stream; it is no easy matter to discover both the diamonds and the paste hidden in them. Seeing that the title of Pisani’s article contains no hint of the words it explores, someone interested in the history of fregata will find the relevant section only by paging through the entire miscellany. I do this type of work routinely. However, even this method does not guarantee success, for who can open every book and every journal in creation? Unfortunately, complete bibliographies do not exist, and when they appear, they are outdated.

Attempts to derive fregata from Arabic (harraqat, plural of harraqa “fire ship”; my transliteration is simplified) and Greek (aphtaktos “without deck”) can probably be discounted; fregata seems to be a word with a Romance root. Since fregata ends in -ata, it looks like an adaptation of some participle that at one time followed the feminine noun navis “ship,” for example, navis fabricata “a made, constructed ship.” The path from fabricata to fregata cannot be recovered, and this hypothesis has been abandoned, though, apart from being offered by an outstanding scholar, it finds support in Italian bastimento “ship, vessel,” from bastonare “beat” (bastone is “stick”; cf. Engl. baton, going back to a French congener of bastone, and bastinado “beating with a stick,” from Spanish), and we immediately recollect Engl. ship and its Germanic kin, often traced to some verb for cutting and carving. Equally hopeless is the proposed form (navis) virgata “boat equipped with a lateen-yard” (lateen is a triangular “Latin” sail, called this because of its use in the Mediterranean; virga is akin to French vergue “plank supporting the sail”). Italian fregare (from fricare, as in Engl. friction) means “rub,” and the verbal noun fregata means “rubbing,” but what does or did a frigate rub? Obviously another false track. Fregata sounds almost like regatta. However, this similarity again leads us nowhere, for fregata and regatta, the latter of Venetian origin, are entirely different things. According to still another suggestion, frigates were used for saving shipwrecked people and were initially called naufragata “boat useful in shipwrecks” (compare Italian naufrago and French naufraugé “a shipwrecked person”). The form naufragata has not been recorded, and if it ever existed, why should the first element have been lost?

Since 1350, the year in which the word fregata first surfaced in Boccaccio’s Decameron, it has designated many different types of vessels. It was at first a boat towed by the admiral’s galley, then a navigium exploratorium (a spy-boat, rather than an explorer, if I understand this Latin term correctly), still later a small warship, a three-mast merchant ship, and now, to quote various English dictionaries, “a U.S. warship of approximately 5,000 to 7,000 tons, intermediate between a cruiser and destroyer, used primarily for escort duty,” “large type of fast sailing ship used in war before introduction of steam; next in size to ships of the line, carrying about 25 to 50 guns; corresponding in type and function to modern cruiser,” “a fast naval vessel of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, generally having a lofty ship rig and heavily armed on one or two decks; any of various types of modern naval vessels ranging in size from a destroyer escort to a cruiser, frequently armed with guided missiles and used for aircraft carrier escort duty, shore bombardment, and miscellaneous combat functions,” and so forth. Like the baby of the infamous ad, the frigate has come a long way. The forms of the word also varied but remained close to its source: fragata (Venice), fargada (Spain), frugatte (Germany; in Germany only fahaden looks exotic; the modern form is Fregatte), fraguate (Marseille, France; Modern French frégate). In English and German books the word appeared more than two centuries after the Decameron. The OED records forms beginning with fre– and fri-.

The Kahanes favored the derivation of fregata from falca “the raised edge of a boat” (remember “having a lofty ship rig”?). In their opinion, navis in-falc-ata yielded navis infargata “boat with a raised edge”; hence fargata and fregata. The change from fargata to fregata is easy (it would be a trivial case of metathesis), but we find r for l in the root only in Genoese farca and rg only in French fargue “a plank in a covering board called plank-sheer”; however, nothing points to the fact that Boccaccio’s form, the earliest known to us, had been influenced by Genoese, let alone French, usage. Pisani’s starting point was Italian dialectal fragu “coast, sea shore.” He suggested that a small vessel known in the 14th century as fregata had developed from the phrase nave de fragata “ship for coast-wise traffic.” Allegedly, original frigates (small vessels) were used for all kinds of operations close to the shore. In Old Italian the term nave littoraria, with the meaning Pisani reconstructed for fregata, existed. Of all the etymologies we have seen so far, his is probably the most realistic, even though “boat towed by the admiral’s galley” is not exactly what he would have needed for his reconstruction. As always, there is little hope for finding the evidence that will clinch the argument. It may sometimes be easier to win a sea battle that to find the origin of a sea term.

On an entirely different note, I see that the OED has frigger “a small glass ornament or testing sample.” The first citation is dated 1923 (from a book on glass making), and the word’s origin is unknown. The Italian verb fregiare means “to decorate” (this sense is obsolete); “to ornament, embellish.” Is it possible that frigger was brought as slang from Italy and transformed in England into an obscenity with an innocent sense? As Skeat once said, when one begins to guess, one usually guesses wildly.

The Russian author Goncharov, the author of the deservedly famous novel Oblomov, accompanied Admiral Putyatin (or Putiatin) to Japan on board the frigate Pallada and wrote a book about the voyage and the negotiations (1858). Below you will see a picture of this ship: no missiles yet, just a profusion of sails.

Image credits: (1) Action between Russian steam firgate Vladimir and Turkish steam frigate Pervaz in Bahri of 5 November 1853. By Alexey Bogolyubov. Public domain via WikiArt. (2) Фрегат “Паллада”, 1847 года Бумага, акварель. By Alexey Bogolyubov. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Elliot


    I just wanted to expose my astonishment in finding a site answering my bold Google search “where does the word frigate comes from”. I like to read about renaissance era ships and knowing word etymology does complete my overall knowledge of the subject.

    Thank you,


    P.S. As I am commenting on the Oxford University Blog, I will just point out that English is my second language.

  2. […] years ago, I wrote a post on the origin of the word frigate. The reason I embarked on that venture was explained in the post: I had run into what seemed to me […]

  3. CJ

    A fregata “rubbed” against the other ship they were about to board during the fight so they could be close enough to board.

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